Ottoman Impressions: Turkish Letters

Turkish Letters
Translated by Edward Foster with introduction by Philip Mansel

Eland/Sickle Moon Books


“Fresh, appreciative and funny,” it says on the cover of Ogier de Busbecq’s Turkish Letters, republished for the first time since 1968 in Edward Seymour Forster’s 1927 translation, with a splendid new introduction by Philip Mansel. The lapidary encomium, I see, is mine. It is hard not to warm to Busbecq of the Letters. In the first of the four, written in 1555, he extols the glories of Süleyman’s Istanbul, “created by nature for the capital of the world”. Two letters later, now in disgrace and under house arrest, he rails against the city, cities in general, and admits to being a country boy at heart. Busbecq’s Durrell-like description of the menagerie of curious animals and birds he assembles in his house includes an infatuated crane who lovingly lays a single egg under a bed and a brace of partridges who cannot resist the sight of his purple satin slippers.

If Busbecq was not the first or last Westerner to draw favourable contrasts between the Ottoman Empire and conditions in his own country, he does so with great wit and shrewdness.

Like Mary Wortley Montagu in the eighteenth century, and Robert Byron in the twentieth, Busbecq treated his apparently casual form – four letters to a friend at home – “a coarsely spun yarn perhaps, just as I should tell it if we were talking together” – with extreme literary care. He personally supervised their publication in Paris in 1588, and they ran to twenty editions in seven languages by 1700. Contemporaries, who still knew remarkably little about the Ottomans, were delighted with full-blown descriptions of the way the empire operated, discussion of Ottoman tastes and prejudices, details of court intrigue and diplomatic one-upmanship.

He travelled with a first-class retinue of scientists and artists: Melchior Lorck did the first panoramic view of Istanbul, while Busbecq himself is credited with introducing Vienna to the tulip and hauling out a “wagon-load” of old manuscripts and inscriptions which have proved valuable to historians and philologists. The letters remain a principal source for understanding court politics of the time, and probe strengths and weaknesses in the Ottoman system.

Mansel’s introduction defines this amiable ambassador’s motives and sets his embassy firmly in the context of Süleyman’s empire at its greatest height. Even readers familiar with the letters will want this new edition on their shelves, or in their pocket.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 24
  • Light Years from New York

    American-born Carla Grissmann wrote Dinner of Herbs, her portrait of an isolated hamlet in central Anatolia, to assuage her loss when she was forced to leave at a few days’ notice. She talks to Maureen Freely of her love of remote places and people.

  • Soups for Cool Cooks

    Soup, the most elementary form of cooking, was perhaps the starting point for man’s culinary adventure. Refined over time, evolving into consommés, veloutés and bisques, it has entered the rarified realms of haute cuisine.
    More cookery features


  • The Wild East

    Home to the world’s oldest settlements, land of biblical prophets – the Tigris and Euphrates basin is a fabled but forgotten frontier. In a 30-page celebration, Manuel Çitac captures its splendour in photographs, while Min Hogg keeps a wry diary on her sortie to this hard-baked corner of Anatolia


  • Raise a Glass to Gallipoli

    In the first of a series on the great wines of Turkey and its ancient dominions, Kevin Gould visits Gallipoli. A land of heroes from Homeric times to the First World War, the peninsula has also for 3,000 years prided itself on its wines.


  • The Monsignor and the Minister

    Osman Streater recounts a remarkable piece of unrecorded history: the wartime friendship between the future Pope John XXIII and his great-uncle Numan Menemencioğlu, Turkey’s Foreign Minister from 1942 to 1944. The most important area of their joint work is one that is not mentioned in histories official or unofficial: they saved about 100,000 Jews from the Nazis

  • Connoisseur 24

    London’s Islamic Sales Week, Washington’s textile exhibitions, New York’s Mughal jewellery, Ara Güler’s Turkey in black and white and the Biennial in Istanbul



Buy the Book
Buy the issue
Issue 24, 2001 The Wild East
£8.00 / $11.02 / 42.13 TL